Relative and absolute loss

Change is difficult to deal with, especially if it is a change for the worse in one’s financial status. Losing one’s job and being forced to accept a lower paying one or having to lower one’s lifestyle is not easy to accept, irrespective of what one’s initial and final level of living was.

In the wake of the Bernie Madoff fraud, we hear of many people saying that they are ‘financially ruined’, that they have ‘lost everything’. When looked at closely, though, some of those descriptions seem to be based on a relative rather than an absolute scale.

For example, take this article by someone named Alexandra Penney who was a Madoff victim and was so traumatized by the prospect of her loss that she did not leave her apartment for days. But when you read her piece, you realize that she lives in a nice New York apartment, has another studio for her work, a cottage in Florida, and employs a maid who comes in three times a week to, among other things, iron her 40 ‘classic white shirts’ because she likes to wear a clean new one every day. Every year Penney travels to many exotic countries.

Penney will now have to give up some of these things, and she is so traumatized that she thinks of suicide.

I’ve lived a great and interesting life. I love beautiful things: high thread count sheets, old china, watches, jewelry, Hermes purses, and Louboutin shoes. I like expensive French milled soap, good wines, and white truffles. I have given extravagant gifts like diamond earrings. I traveled a lot. In this last year, I’ve been Laos, Cambodia, India, Russia, and Berlin for my first solo art show. Will I ever be able to explore exotic places again?

The article reeks with self-pity and in doing so betrays a certain lack of awareness and sensitivity of how it might be perceived by people for whom the words ‘lost everything’ or ‘financial ruin’ may mean becoming homeless or going hungry, and not the loss of a maid or a beach vacation home or trips to exotic locales.

In Penney’s case, she seems devastated that she may have to give up her studio and her maid and that she has to learn how to take the subway in New York. (I had thought that all New Yorkers routinely took the subway but apparently there are some people for whom it is a totally foreign experience.) As the comments on her post indicate, she received some scorn from people who see her self-pity as signs of a self-absorbed and pampered life.

I do not doubt for a minute that Penney feels a genuine sense of loss and am not saying that she should not feel sorry for herself. Loss is loss and if, for example, it should turn out that some personal financial setback results in my being forced to give up my home and move into a small apartment in a cheaper location or have to carefully count pennies in order to meet the basic necessities of life, it would undoubtedly be difficult for me to adjust and I would feel as sorry for myself as Penney does.

But even in my loss I hope I would retain enough of a sense of proportion to realize that it is a relative loss and that, as long as I still had food and shelter, it is not ruin on any absolute scale. We need to always bear in mind that there are people who are in far worse straits than us and what to us may seem like an almost unbearable lowering of living standards may be luxury for them.

POST SCRIPT: Denis Leary remembers his own films

Leary is a really funny guy.


  1. says

    i appreciate the orientation on keeping a loss in right perspective. when it really comes down to it physical loss is one we should fear such as eyesight and walking–what you pay for your eyes?

    anyway, i have found a comprehensive site ont he madoff fraud and it has sections devoted to the victims and the impact of the fraud on the investment biz

    here it is

  2. kural says

    Bertolt Brecht spent most of a lifetime reversing the decadence and ruthlessness hidden under the widely accepted dramatic devices of tragedy of the classes and comedy of the masses, reminding us that in hte real world it is the rich who laugh and poor who cry.

  3. says

    I liked the article. Equality, putting others before your own self, kindness is more important to me than talking about religion.

  4. says

    I liked the article. Equality, putting others before your own self, kindness is more important to me than talking about religion.

  5. Vincenzo Liberatore says

    I just wanted to point out to the readers of this blog an interview with Rep. Kanjorski (D-PA). Rep. Kanjorski made major revelations of what was going on behind closed doors at the time of the October bank bail-out.

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